The Magazine

Romantic Teuton

Slobodan Milosevic's favorite novelist goes postmodern.

Jan 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 17 • By MICHAEL MCDONALD
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Crossing the Sierra de Gredos

A Novel

by Peter Handke

Translated by Krishna Winston

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pp., $30

If you've been tapping your foot impatiently for the next "great" postmodernist novel--hierarchies being bad, the quote marks are de rigueur--brace yourself: The wait is over! The book is Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, the author is the Austrian writer Peter Handke, and midwife to the enterprise is Krishna Winston, who translated the novel, which appeared in German in 2002 as Der Bildverlust oder Durch die Sierra de Gredos.

Bildverlust, as Mark Twain noted in his famous essay "The Awful German Language," is one of those "compound words constructed by the [German] writer on the spot and not to be found in any dictionary." It means something like "image-loss." It's a concept central to Handke's concerns here, but a word guaranteed to leave the prospective book buyer nonplussed. Hence, one assumes, its elimination from the English title.

Readers of THE WEEKLY STANDARD may be familiar with Handke from his public engagements during and following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Throughout the 1990s, Handke added his voice to those on the hard left who maintained that Europe and America had contrived the "so-called humanitarian intervention" in the Balkans for the benefit of Western bankers.

"Everybody says Sept. 11 is a magic date," Handke has declared:

And I say: And what happened on March 24? Ah! Nobody knows that on March 24, 1999, in the middle of Europe, an independent, sovereign State was attacked by awful bombs without any law, where such and such number of people--let's not quibble over numbers--civilians, children died for nothing and nothing. What happened on March 24, 1999? That should be written in neon letters above Europe. Every evening .  .  . What happened? These shitty Europeans who today want nothing but money and disco and video and Internet, they should learn: What happened on March 24, 1999? What happened? A line was crossed that has thrown the world into the negative.

Handke damned the NATO bombing campaign to end Serbian ethnic cleansing, damned the trials of Serbian war criminals in the Hague, and damned what he termed the "Fourth Reich" of Western journalists who reported on such things as Serbian ethnic cleansing and Serbian war criminals. Praise he reserved for Slobodan Milosevic--"a man who defended his people"--at whose funeral Handke spoke in 2006.

But the considerable reputation Handke commands has less to do with politics than with his undeniable talent as a writer. Handke has a keen ear for exposing the clichés that cloud people's thinking. And when he's in form, his ability to describe nature scenes is such that it has reminded many a Continental critic of the magnificent landscape scenes limned in classic German prose by the 19th-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter.

From the start of his career in the 1960s, Handke has been seen as one of the most important German-speaking writers active today. Indeed, when in 2004 the Süddeutsche Zeitung published a list of the 50 greatest German novels of the 20th century, an early Handke, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970), was on it. Many, myself included, also find his slim memoir of the life and suicide of his mother, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972), to be a minor masterpiece. Now in his mid-sixties, he has received every important German-language literary prize.

Handke's early novels and plays tend to be slimmed-down, angst-ridden, and highly experimental affairs. He once stated that his "primary literary intent is the destruction of predetermined systems and concepts of reality." In other words, out with linear plots, mimetic narrative and a concern with social insights into human nature, and in with the irrationality of human consciousness, the instability of language, and a relentless focus on the act of writing itself.

While in his twenties, Handke proudly proclaimed that he wanted nothing to do with politics. The title of a 1967 essay, "Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms" ("I Live in an Ivory Tower") seemed to say it all. But if your starting point is that human language is incapable of portraying reality truthfully, you will be suspicious, to say the least, of those who believe otherwise. And suspicion is apt to grow into hostility if you begin to believe that the powers that be are relying upon a dictatorial "discursive regime" to bound debate and channel perceptions.

In retrospect, Handke's political radicalization was all but complete by the end of the 1980s, a decade in which he delved into Heidegger and emerged ever more committed to demonstrating how language systems distort perception and how Reason is a mechanism of social repression.